Why Easter Eggs? Inside the Origins and History of the Tradition

Here’s a look at where the tradition came from and how it evolved through history

NBCUniversal Media, LLC

The world is preparing to celebrate the most important day in Christianity this Sunday: Easter.

The Christian holiday commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ after he was crucified by the Romans on Good Friday more than 2,000 years ago. Easter Sunday lands on a different day each year because it's based on the dates of the spring equinox and the first spring moon cycle, which usually occurs between March 21 and April 25.

What comes to your mind when you think of Easter? Modern traditions of the holiday are associated with Easter eggs, the Easter Bunny, sweet treats and chocolate. But where did these traditions come from?

What’s the Origin of the Easter Egg Tradition?

Easter eggs are believed to have originated in medieval Europe but may have been unrelated to any Christian tradition. Some historians believe Easter eggs came from Anglo-Saxon festivals in the spring to celebrate pagan goddess Eostre.

The goddess, who may be the namesake of Easter, represented the dawn in spring, and eggs were buried and eaten during the festival. Eggs are believed to be a symbol of fertility and the rebirth of nature after the dead of winter.

Many pagan traditions from the festival of Eostre were adopted by Christian missionaries to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, as a way to encourage conversion.

Easter eggs are often said to tie into the celebration because they represent new life, though the metaphor may have been applied retroactively.

An alternative origin links Easter eggs to fasting during Lent, when animal products couldn’t be eaten. Eggs may have been hard-boiled and stored and then eaten at the end of Lent to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.

Why Do We Color Easter Eggs?

The tradition of dyed and decorated eggs dates back to the 13th century when nobles would exchange them as gifts. English villagers would also frequently give eggs to their church on Good Friday. 

Through the religious perspective, another source argues that in Mesopotamia, early Christians dyed eggs red to mimic the blood that Jesus shed during his crucifixion.

However, the tradition of dyeing eggs originated at least some 2,500 years ago in the Trypillian culture that lived in Central Europe. Historians believe the ancient Persians, or Zoroastrians, painted eggs for Nowruz, or Persian New Year.

In the 12th century, King Edward I of England ordered 450 eggs to be colored and decorated with gold leaf to give to royal relatives during the spring season. The tradition continued a few years later when the Vatican sent Henry VIII an egg in a silver case to mark the Easter season.

An Australian Zoo is celebrating Easter by decorating the animal exhibits and welcoming in guests to join the festivities!

How Has the Easter Egg Hunt Evolved Throughout History?

The tradition of Easter egg hunts and gifting eggs to children originated in Germany in the 17th century. 

As a child, Queen Victoria enjoyed egg hunts put on by her German mother, and helped popularize the tradition in Great Britain. Artificial eggs containing toys and treats began supplanting real eggs in Victorian England.

European candy manufacturers also began to make egg-shaped chocolates and candies for Easter in the 19th century.

Egg rolling also became a popular children’s activity, and the White House held its first Easter egg roll in 1878 during Rutherford Hayes’ presidency. 

Even though the event has no religious significance, some have considered egg rolling symbolic of the stone blocking Jesus’ tomb being rolled away, leading to his resurrection.

How Does the Easter Bunny Fit Into the Egg Tradition?

The exact origin of the Easter Bunny remains unclear.

The tradition may have first arrived in the United States in the 17th century with German migrants who settled in Pennsylvania, adopted from the German tradition of an egg-laying hare called Ostergase or Oschter Haws.

The custom eventually spread across the country with the bunny giving out treats and gifts in decorated baskets.

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